"Smells Like Mass Extinction" - Deconstructing Bad Universe

As I'm sure many of you did, I recorded Phil Plait's (twitter, blog) Bad Universe pilot last week, and it was so good that I watched it twice. And then two more times as I tried to figure out why it was so compelling. Why am so interested in picking apart these particular 44 minutes of TV awesomeness? Because at the end of the day, effective science teaching isn't so different from effective science programming, even down to the timing. In an hour of TV, you get about 44 minutes of programming. Likewise, in an hour-long lecture, you can probably only use about 75% of that time, about 44 minutes, for content, leaving one quarter of your time to questions and dealing with administrative issues. And if you're standing in front of any class with more than about 50 students, your lecture, in many ways becomes a show, and you become an actor.

bad universe collage.jpg

Figure 1: A few stills from the show. Click to (in proper Bad Astronomy style) "massively philplaitenate."

I don't know that much about TV production, but I know a thing or two about what makes for good teaching. So here are, in my opinion, five things that Phil and his Discovery Channel production team got right when designing the pilot of Bad Universe, and how we can take these lessons and incorporate them into our teaching.

1. Killer opening
How do most undergraduate lectures start? They likely begin with something like "today, we're going to talk about social cognition in dogs, and how they might actually be a better model for our own social cognition, than even chimpanzees or bonobos." I don't like this, and I try to avoid it whenever possible. Lots of TV shows do this too, and it seems to me to be a time waster.

If you've watched any of a number of cooking shows you know what I'm talking about. I love watching Everyday Italian, but before Giada cooks anything, they show you what amounts to a cliffs notes version of the same exact recipe, with the same clips, with just slightly less information. "Today, we're going to combine store-bought mayo, with chili sauce, fish sauce, and some garlic to make a spicy mayo, which we're going to pair with rice paper wrapped veggie spring rolls." Then they show you video footage of her chopping up the red and yellow bell peppers, grating the carrots, and wrapping them up in the butter lettuce and rice paper. If you're me, you're sitting there going, okay, now I know how to make the spring rolls and the spicy mayo, what is going to happen for the next 18 minutes? And then the entire thing is repeated, in slow-motion, with very little new information. I get the value of repetition, but it's a little extreme.

Bad Universe does better:

It begins with a flash in the sky. Blinded by the sun, observatories don't pick it up until the last moment. It comes in fast. As it bears down, there is barely time to sound an alert before the stadium-sized asteroid slams into the city of nearly four and a half million people. And when it's done, all that remains of Sydney, Australia, is a burning crater.

This is the right way to grab the attention of an audience. Describe a real problem, use real examples, and appeal to the viewer's emotions. If the viewer is affectively engaged with a program (or a lecture), it becomes much easier to maintain his or her attention. Also, the show doesn't open with footage of Phil. You hear his voice, but what you see are animations of asteroids crashing into Sydney opera house. Humans are extraordinarily sensitive to faces, and if we see a face in our visual field, we pay attention to it. If the show began with Phil's face, we might be paying attention, but some of the emotional investment would be lost because we would miss out on the visual aspects of the scariness of an asteroid falling onto the Earth. He doesn't just tell us how an asteroid impact might occur, he shows us.

It isn't until after we are fully emotionally invested and have a real visual sense of the problem that our attention is allowed to shift to Phil himself. But again, he keeps our emotional engagement, making the issues relevant to the viewer

Now, I have some bad news for you. This scenario is one hundred percent guaranteed rock-solid bet-the-house going to happen. An asteroid *is* going to hit the Earth. Maybe a city. Maybe YOUR city. The questions are: when, how big, where, and can we stop it? These are the kinds of predictions that make scientists lose their hair. But that's what predictions are; they're a big what-if. So I'm gonna take you someplace where we can see what happens when an asteroid hits the Earth.

Imagine how boring Bad Universe could have been, if it began "Today, we're going to talk about how we on Earth might prepare for the eventuality of an asteroid or comet slamming into the earth. It will happen, and could happen anytime, anywhere, and in any place." Other science shows have committed this sort of episode-killing error. How boring!

2. "Holy Haleakala!"
Phil said that phrase five times in 44 minutes, or roughly once every eight minutes. And he had one "holy cow" and one "holy macaroni" thrown in to keep things interesting. I'm not sure if this was intentional or not, but I think that associating a catchphrase with an individual is hugely effective. When I was in high school, my Burmese AP Physics teacher could not say the word "shift" without resulting in a chorus of snickers from the class. He would spell out the word, every time he needed to use it. And while teaching us to use our graphing calculators to solve physics problems, he needed to use the word shift a lot. How long do you think before the students started spelling out the word shift as well?

I might be betraying my age a little bit, but when I was a kid watching Loveline, Adam Carolla said "good times," every three seconds. Or at least, it seemed that he did. Adam hasn't been on Loveline for years, and he's been off the radio for a couple years already, and I still use the phrase "good times." Daily.

As always when listening to Loveline, discretion is advised.

If you have a dumb little catchphrase, it endears you to the viewers or to the students.

3. Accessible analogies.
"The explosive equivalent of three thousand pounds of TNT."
"That's thirty times faster than a rifle bullet."
"You'd be basically turned into cottage cheese, encased in your own skin."
"An object the size of a beach ball could have made this crater."
"There would be no Sydney, Australia, after that."

'nuff said. Appeal to the experience and knowledge of the viewer.

4. Hands-on Demonstrations
Most of the demonstrations on a TV show like this, and Bad Universe is no exception, feature the kinds of experiments and demos that you can't reasonably do at home. Huge explosions, giant cannons, massive telescopes, huge numbers of research participants. And in classes, we probably spend a lot of time talking about that kind of research, showing videos or data or whatnot. But Bad Universe also included hands-on demonstrations that Phil did himself, without requiring fancy equipment, expensive computers, or shielded bunkers.

Most of us have never created impact craters in the New Mexico desert. But in the second act of the show, Phil did what could easily have been a classroom demonstration, by himself, without relying on other scientists or guests, using just ping pong balls and liquid nitrogen to model the motion of a comet. Or using water, household cleaners, corn syrup, dirt, charcoal, and dry ice to build a model comet. It doesn't matter if these are exactly the components that go into a comet - it is close enough to drive the point home, and more importantly, it appeals to the experience of the viewers. We can imagine what would happen if we took a bunch of dirt, water, some basic kitchen and household supplies, and froze them together. We could even try it ourselves; its trivial to purchase a small quantity of dry ice. Instead of using a flashy movie-style animation to explain what happens when a comet flies to close to the sun, he used a fresnel lens and a grapefruit.

Lots of explosions are cool, too.

5. Humanizing the Scientists
As scientists, sometimes we like to convey to students a sense of our own importance. And its true, we do important work, and many of us are trained in techniques that very few people on the planet know how to do. Sometimes our research - eventually - will have the potential of saving lives, and this is not to be minimized.

But we're also human, and if we can allow our students to identify with us, then we will be more successful educators.

Each one of the scientists in Bad Universe is portrayed as very accessible and very human. There were no white lab coats, and very little arrogance. Many of them were wearing jeans and sweaters. Scientists were not interviewed in the classic front-of-the-bookcase style. But they were universally excited, passionate, and thought that the work they were doing was really cool. (And it was! Too bad I have no reason to explode anything in my research!)

The Take-Home Message
The take-home message that I learned from carefully watching Bad Universe was that appealing to the experience of the viewer (or student) as well as engaging them on an emotional level, are two important components to effective teaching.

This is not to say, of course, that those things can substitute for lack of personality or lack of expertise - two things that Phil Plait has in abundance. But personality and expertise usually isn't enough, and as students become more and more used to receiving information in ways other than simply speech and text, it will be more and more important to incorporate aspects of television and film production into our teaching, if we want to remain engaging and effective instructors.

More like this

Sunday was a really long day around Chateau Steelypips, and I couldn't see staying awake to watch the premiere of Phil Plait's Bad Universe on the Discovery Channel, so I'm way late in writing about it. I DVRed it, though, and watched it last night. The theme of the premiere/ pilot was killer rocks…
By Dr. Adrian Brown Planetary physicist at the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe, SETI Institute, and Gail Jacobs When most people look at photos of the Martian landscape, they see the kind of dry topography that, while attractive, shows only that at first glance Mars…
"Don't blame yourself. The apocalypse wasn't your fault. Actually, it was just as much your fault as it was anyone else's. Come to think of it, if you're an American, it was probably about 80-90 percent more your fault than the average human. But don't let that get you down. It wasn't exclusively…
Phil Plait says "Don't Panic!" and he should know because he is the Death from the Skies!: The Science Behind the End of the World which is about things hitting the earth. The object is called 2014 RC and it was discovered on September 2nd. It will arrive on Sunday. The object is about 20 meter…

"As scientists, sometimes we like to convey to students a sense of our own importance."

LOL! There's a lot of interesting literature on scientists being humans, an understanding of which can make us better teachers as you say and perhaps even better scientists. I heartily recommend Stephen Shapin's "Never Pure: Historical Studies of Science as if It Was Produced by People with Bodies, Situated in Time, Space, Culture, and Society, and Struggling for Credibility and Authority"

I liked the show well enough. Accessible analogies, demonstrations have tons of teaching value. But, I have to admit--I'm kind of sick of the "explosion after explosion, after laser beam, after high-speed collision" science. It's not my taste. I like "Planet Earth" and "Life" and even "Meteorite Men" better.

Wow Jason, thanks! I'm really glad you liked it. Your review made me blush. :)

Casey (#1): since it was about asteroids, it's hard to escape doing lots of explosions. The other two episodes have some too, but not nearly like the first one. I don't want to overdo it, but there are times they're necessary. It's the end of the world, after all!

By Phil Plait (not verified) on 04 Sep 2010 #permalink

I pretty much agree except that I do have three little critiques:

1) I'm a little torn on the (over)use of "Holy Haleakela". While watching, I thought he used it a little too much, but I can't say that it sounded that way to new watchers of BA, so you might be right.

2) I think that he could've done a better job of explaining why each of his experiments was a good simulation of asteroid behavior. As it was, I felt like the audience was left to simply take his word that a burried "McVeigh bomb" was an accurate simulation of an impact or that shooting a bullet at a rock accurately simulated asteroid deflection.

3) I would have liked it if he had explained that one of the drawbacks of the impactor method (as well as one of the great strengths of the gravitational tow method) is that some or much of the energy from an impactor is converted to rotational rather than translational momentum in the asteroid.

But those quibbles are relatively minor compared to the awesomeness that pervaded the pilot. I am totally looking forward to episode 2.

My one complaint - too much "recap" of earlier points as the episode progressed.

I have watched lots of science documentaries. They really look like documentaries and it seems that they are good for knowledge ONLY and not really inviting. I like the idea of using scientist and a cartoon of them at a moment, at least this is what my students said. Maybe I am a little bias as I have been badastronomy readers since 6 years ago.

I agree over the use of holy haleakala(is this correct?) it is somewhat overused.

Overall, I can't wait for the next episode.

P/s i am promoting my students to watch 'Bad Universe'

Air date of Episode 2?

By TheLastImmortal (not verified) on 05 Sep 2010 #permalink

Hasn't been announced yet, but I will try to do so (probably in one of my weekly link round up posts) when that info is available.

"Imagine how boring Bad Universe could have been, if it began "Today, we're going to talk about how we on Earth might prepare for the eventuality of an asteroid or comet slamming into the earth. It will happen, and could happen anytime, anywhere, and in any place." Other science shows have committed this sort of episode-killing error. How boring!"

Oh please. That's boring? Obviously it sounds trite the way you've written it, but nobody actually says "today we're going to talk..." Anyone who would not be interested and alert after hearing that intro is ALREADY dead as far as I'm concerned. Or already familiar with the information, so not the intended audience.

"But personality and expertise usually isn't enough, and as students become more and more used to receiving information in ways other than simply speech and text, it will be more and more important to incorporate aspects of television and film production into our teaching, if we want to remain engaging and effective instructors."

The hell with students then. Too spoiled and hard to please, and totally lacking (by your own account) in their own imaginations. How BORING, and obviously not worth MY time.

Seriously, personality and expertise are "just not enough" anymore? Yes, I'm a TA, and articles like this REALLY annoy and depress me.